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Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia


Xionites / Nezak (Hunas / Turks) / Kingdom of Zabulistan

Starting in the fourth century AD, a general invasion of nomadic tribes began to overwhelm southern Central Asia and northern South Asia (a region which can be combined under the label of 'eastern Iran'). This wave of barbarian invasions is attributed to tribal confederations which originated on the Central Asian steppe.

The route southwards from there was not a new one but it was the Kidarites (Red Huns) were the first to follow it on this occasion. An examination of their origins and of those of Xionites in general is included in their introduction, the other groups being the Hephthalites, Alchons, and Nezak.

That name - Xionites (Chionites) - is the one most associated with this fresh wave of migrant warriors and their families. It has also created the speculation that they are related to the Huns of Europe. They were certainly the Huna of India, while Chinese sources linked the Xionite groups both to the Xiongnu and to the Huns.

FeatureModern scholars also follow this lead, with current thought suggesting that the Xionites were a Turkic-Mongolian grouping which had migrated from the region around the Altai Mountains. This area seems to have formed the original homeland of the early Turks (the Göktürks and others), where they mingled with Indo-European Tocharians to the south and Mongolians to the north (see feature link for an in-depth exploration of the Xionite name).

FeaturePtolemy in the second century AD is one of the first European writers to mention the Huns, with Marcellinus and Priscus also doing so. They likewise suggest that the Huns were an inner Asian people - although it appears that not all Huns were of the same stock (see feature link for more on this discussion).

The Nezak (or Nēzak) are much harder to pin down than the other Xionite groups but, seeing as the Alchons were heavily involved in Hephthalite efforts to conquer northern India, there is a chance that the Nezak were of the same stock. It was the power vacuum in the southern Hindu Kush which was created by the death at Hephthalite hands of Sassanid Shah Peroz in 484 which allowed the rise of an independent dynasty in Kabulistan/Zabulistan which was known as the Nezak.

The Nezak shahs, despite never being as hegemonic as the Kidarites, Alchons, or Hephthalites, and in fact at one point dividing their territories between the two branches of Kabul and Zabulistan (and its capital of Ghazni), did manage to create local cohesion and establish an influential coin style. Their control of the two cities was relatively brief, seemingly ending with the Western Göktürk takeover of the region in the 620s.

However, the local cohesion they created and which outlived their dynasty was highly useful in checking Islamic expansion in the middle of the seventh century, with its widespread political and cultural repercussions which included a pivotal role in forming the early Islamic Persianate culture of eastern Iran.

The Nezak dynasty is known mainly through its coin issues and few textual references. In textual sources, little reference is made of the Nezak shahs of Kabul, except in Chinese sources where the word Nisai and sometimes Nishu is used to refer to them, despite the possible 'Hephthalite' origins of the terms. Their coins, long known as the most elaborately designed of the output of the 'Iranian Huns', carry a legend which reads 'nycky MLK', meaning 'nēzak šāh', king of the Nezak, or the 'Nezak king' in Pahlavi script.

The most famous Chinese reference to the Nezak shahs is the mid-seventh century account of the Suishu (the Book of Sui, the account of the Sui dynasty), which says that the king of Kabul wore a crown topped by a bull's head, a detail which has been interpreted as referring to the buffalo skull appearing on top of the crown of the Nezak shahs on their coinage.

The Central Asian steppe

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from King of the Seven Climes: A History of the Ancient Iranian World (3000 BCE - 651 CE), Khodadad Rezakhani (Touraj Daryaee, Ed, Ancient Iran Series Vol IV, 2017), from Xiiaona- and Xyôn in Zoroastrian Texts, C G Cereti (Coins, Art, and Chronology II, Michael Alram & Deborah E Klimburg-Salter, Eds, 2010), from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, from The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, Joseph Kitagawa (Routledge, 2013), from Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity, Anthony Kaldellis (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), from Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, Jonathan Conant (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and from External Link: History of the Wars, Procopius (Wikisource).)


Sassanid Shah Peroz again chases the Hephthalites out of Bactra and towards Arion in Aria (Alexandria Ariana, modern Herat). Along the way he destroys the tower built by Bahram V which marks the border between Sassanid and Hephthalite.

On the other side of the border, Khushnavaz of the Hephthalites sets a trap into which Peroz falls (literally - the trap being a deep ditch), along with around thirty of his sons and about 100,000 troops. Their bodies are never recovered by the Sassanids.

Map of Central Asia and India AD 500
By the late 400s the eastern sections of the Sassanid empire had been overrun and to an extent occupied by the Hephthalites (Xionites) after they had killed Shah Peroz (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The eastern empire is overrun and is largely occupied by the Hephthalites until their final fall - this includes regions such as Margiana, with the Hephthalites setting up puppet governors there.

In Kabul and Zabulistan the Nezak are able to create their own semi-independent dynasty and mint their own coins. It begins with one ruler over both cities but at some stage, probably when the kingdom is divided between two successors, a separate Nezak dynasty is established in Zabulistan.

c.560 - 620

Shri Shahi

In Kabul. Not a name but a rank, found on coinage.

This Shri Shahi is known from coins found in Gandhara, but it is a title not a name. The same title is found on a coin dated to the eighth century Shahi kingdom. With this being a translation of the Brahmi śrī ṣāhi, the same title has been found in Bactrian as sri šauo, and more tellingly in Pahlavi as 'nspk MLK'.

The last form certainly means 'Nezak king'. Only the most approximate dating can be applied to this king, coming entirely from the coin which bears his title.

Kidarite coins
The Kidarites swept into eastern Iran and Tokharistan in the mid-fifth century AD, and by the end of the century they and the other Xionite groups were heavily involved in conquering areas of north-western India, which is where this Kidarite bronze obol with a scorpion was found (in the Kashmir Smast caves)


The Hephthalites are defeated by an alliance of Göktürks and the Sassanids, and a level of Indo-Sassanid authority is re-established in the region for the next century. The Western Göktürks set up rival states in Bamiyan, Kabul (seemingly replacing the Nezak kings with their Shahi subjects), and Kapisa under the authority of the viceroy in Tokharistan, strengthening their hold on the Silk Road.

There are further claims for a continuity of Nezak rule of Kabul in AD 661 (see below) and post-679 but these may be based upon a misunderstanding or a lack of knowledge of the succession of Kabul's rulers.


A king of Kabul - seemingly unnamed but probably Ghar-Ilchi, below - apparently faces off against the young Islamic general, Al-Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra, in an heroic battle. Kabul's well-provisioned troops are able to hold their own and the two leaders subsequently agree to peaceful coexistence. Al-Muhallab later becomes governor of Khorasan (in 698).

Nezak-Alchon coin
Two sides of an Alchon-Nezak crossover-type coin dated to a period between AD 580-680 which contains a Nezak-style bust on the obverse (left), and an Alchon tamga within a double border on the reverse (right), displaying the continued close links between the Nezak and the Alchons

653 - c.661


In Kabul. Last-known Nezak ruler.

653 - c.661

According to the Chinese sources, in AD 653 the Chinese emperor formally installs Ghar-ilchi as king of Jibin (Kabul). In 661 the Chinese protectorate of the 'Western Regions' is formed which includes Jibin, and the Tang emperor confirms Ghar-Ilchi as Kabul's ruler.

However, a Turkic dynasty soon reigns in Zabulistan, apparently seizing power in Kabulistan from Ghar-ilchi, the last Nezak king to be known by name. This occurs at a point after AD 661, and perhaps even during 661.


The Nezak shahs have apparently survived on an independent basis until at least this date when, according to Tangshu, a king named Hejiezhi claims to be the twelfth king of a dynasty to rule over Jibin or Kabul. The Nezak branch which rules over Zabulistan probably also survives into the same period in the form of the Late Nezak before succumbing to local Turkic rule.

Late Kidarite coins
Two sides of a gold dinar issued in the seventh century by the Kidarites of Kashmir, with the obverse (left) showing a highly-stylised king standing facing, sacrificing at an altar while the reverse (right) shows Ardochsho (Lakshmi) seated (possibly standing)

The claim of the Nezak being in charge of Zabulistan, however, contradicts a claim of 640 that Kabul's ruler is a Khalaj Turk. It may instead be the case that the Nezak have been replaced by this seemingly-locally-formed group of Turks who claim continuity of rule.

The local nature of the Nezak and their connection to the Alchons in southern Gandhara still seemingly means that they have already survived as local administrators under Göktürk suzerainty, and even after the fall of the Göktürks themselves.

Considering the fact that Nezak-style coins continue to be produced well into the eighth century it is more than likely that the Nezak are not overthrown but instead intermarry and pass on their kingdom to their natural successors, the Shahi kings.

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